Adding Structure to Session Zero

By | September 28, 2013

Hello once again!  I’d like to begin with some exciting news – we’ve been invited to demonstrate Infinite Earths at the Escapist Expo next weekend.  We’ll be there Saturday and Sunday in the Games on Demand area, so come check us out!  We will have two scenarios available for play, “Escape from Monthos Vil” and “Tournament of Beers.”  Hope to see you there!

Last week, I talked at length about the Infinite Earths Fellowship Rules and how they are designed to both encourage Players to work together and help the Guide understand what kind of game the Players at the table want.  The Fellowship is decided upon by the Players during Session Zero.

Session Zero is designed to be the first session of a campaign.  In it, the table (Players and Guide) collaboratively develop both a social contract and an overall structure for the campaign, and record these decisions on the Campaign Sheet.

Session Zero begins with the establishment of the social contract.  Among minutia such as when, how often and where the group will meet, the social contract also contains some very important items such as Safety Tier, Dos and Don’ts.  The Safety Tier identifies what level of audience the game would be appropriate for: Kid-Safe, Teen-Safe, Adult-Safe and Unsafe.  These are based roughly on MPAA ratings, and should help Players identify up-front if this is a group or campaign they are comfortable with.

Additionally, there is a list of explicit Do’s and Don’ts that participants can spell out.  For instance, if someone is uncomfortable with child abuse in a game, that’s a clear Don’t.  If someone else is always late and that’s aggravating for the group, “Arrive on time or early” is a pretty clear Do.

Don’ts, unlike most of the rest of the rest of the Campaign Sheet, are one vote out instead of majority rule.  Just because you’re the only gamer at the table who doesn’t like a thing doesn’t mean you have to put up with it.  And if the other gamers at the table want to insist you should. . .well, you now have the opportunity to decide if you want to game with folks who don’t respect what makes you uncomfortable.

The purpose of Session Zero overall is to short-circuit dissatisfaction.  Not only with the game, but with the other people at the table.  So the aim of placing the social contract portion of Session Zero up-front is to identify those sticking points which will discomfort people and allow them to make the decision whether they should even stay as a part of that group.  Because drama should flow from the characters, not the players.

And because this is meant to place the table in a crucible, right at the beginning, it will test how everyone works together and respects each other.  We debated, briefly, allowing this to be asked of Players “in secret,” and letting the Guide assemble the results–but that would actually only serve to delay an inevitability.

Because every table is different, and every group wants to play a different kind of game.  We seek to provide the tools to let people identify what it is they want and don’t want, so that gamers who don’t want to participate don’t have to.  There is an old adage, “No gaming is better than bad gaming,” and we stand by that 100%.

Once the social contract is nailed down, the table can decide on Optional Rules and House Rules.  Optional Rules are those rules which we’ve made modular.  A few weeks ago I talked about Player Agency.  The very first option is, “Can PCs be Influenced by NPCs?”  That will allow each group to decide whether they want the option of their characters potentially being convinced of bad decisions they themselves would not make.

Other options include whether NPC damage can explode like PC damage does, whether character death requires an explicit Deathblow after the character has been reduced to 0 Vitality, and whether Player vs. Player behavior is acceptable.  All of these Optional Rules are identified by whether or not they will make the game, as a game, harder or easier than the default.

And of course, you’ll note that PvP means no Fellowship, which means no cool we-work-together benefits and no healing.  If the player characters are going to be working against each other, they don’t have the level of friendship and care for each other that would give them extra benefits.  But to be clear, PvP is not “when the PCs disagree.”  PvP is when “Bill steals Bob’s gear” or “Bob sets Bill up to be killed by monsters.”  The key is whether the drama is flowing from the story or from the player characters.

House Rules are, of course, as they always have been: those rules that a particular Guide likes to use to tweak the system.  We’ve provided plenty of space to write those down, whatever they may be.

Overall, the rules are discussed second because there’s less chance of them causing players to nope right out of the game, but still more chance than the kind of story that’s going to be played.

Last of all is a discussion of the nature of the game.  It’s here that the Guide explains the setting he or she would like to use, what current threats the Players may have to deal with, major events in the game world, major NPCs, etc.  The Scope of the campaign (whether it will be local, or continent-spanning, or bigger) is decided, as well as its Spin.

Spin is something that’s interesting and exciting for us, and will tie directly into our adventure and campaign products.  Essentially, there are 3 Spins:  Light, Dark, and Mix.  Light Spin refers to an overall set of “good intentions,” while Dark Spin refers to the opposite and Mix blends the two to a Guide’s liking.

For example, an orphanage matron with a Light Spin would genuinely want to help the children under her care.  The same character with a Dark Spin wouldn’t care and would see them as a source of income, potentially selling them as cheap labor.  The Mix version of the character could genuinely care about, for instance, one race or Species of children under here care but not any others.

Spin allows the same characters and events to always feel fresh and new, because if Players encounter those characters multiple times across different tables, they’re never certain what they’re going to get.  We plan to provide Spins for major NPCs and events in our adventuring products, providing a plethora of ideas for Guides.

Campaign Theme is then selected.  Themes identify the general focus of the campaign, such as “Save the World” or “Relic Quest” or “Intrigue.”  These can additionally be combined or supplemented with original ideas from the table, so “Criminal” can become “Criminals in over their heads.”

Once the particulars of the Campaign are determined, the group moves on to decide on the Fellowship type they would like to have (if any).  Once the Fellowship is decided, creation of the Player Characters begins.  Player Characters are created last because, throughout all the previous discussions, Players will likely have begun to develop some idea of a cool character concept for themselves and how their character fits (or could fit) into the larger narrative.

Now, how does Session Zero fit in when you’re just playing a one-shot or a short game?  Well, in that situation, the Guide can always fill out the Campaign Sheet as a way of identifying “what is on offer,” and use that to advertise his or her game.

Thanks for reading!  Next week will begin our “month of Horrors,” with Ray Watters offering a month-long series on horror in gaming with tips, tricks and general thoughts on how to create unsettling moments at the gaming table.  See you next time!

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